In the 1980’s the United States was preoccupied with defeating the Soviet Union and the specter of communism, simultaneously calls for Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were heralded across the Islamic word. At that unique moment, the interests of the United States and Islamic world were aligned, and through close cooperation dealt a mighty death blow to communist Russia in Afghanistan. The film, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, highlights the work of a swashbuckling East Texas Congressman, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and a seductive southern debutante, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who ultimately compelled the United States to fund the mujahedeen (freedom fighters) of Afghanistan. This tag team worked the inner sanctum of the Washington defense establishment and Texas fundraising circuit to immensely expand U.S funding for Afghanistan.
Today, the United States and the Islamic world face the same existential threat: the rise of militant Islam which destabilizes Muslim nations and brings Islam and the West closer to fulfilling the ominous “Clash of Civilizations” prophecy. This mutual enemy creates an opportunity for the mainstream Islamic world and the United States to collaborate. Even though Osama Bin Laden is dead, both the systemic causes of his warped world view and the continued proliferation of his dogma are very much alive. The ideology that serially sends disaffected youth to public places to commit mass murder, destroys civil life, and creates sectarian strife in Muslim countries, is the same ideology that plans the next terrorist attack against America. Conventional warfare, however, has proved inadequate: two wars, Guantanamo Bay, the corrosion of civil liberties and a massive federal deficit have yielded little real progress.
The weapons to defeat this threat are not stinger missiles and Kalashnikov assault rifles, instead, the battle against the myopic ideology of militant Islam, requires schools and economic development. Both Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times have called for increased aid for education to Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. Friedman going so far as to state “For every Predator missile we fire at an Al Qaeda target here, we should help Yemen build 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking.” Rampant unemployment and scarce opportunity for advancement are fodder for extremism and martyrdom.
Demographics can shape destiny and the Islamic world is at a crucial impasse with the potential for incredible economic development or an unprecedented expansion of existing problems. The Islamic world is extremely young and rapidly growing. Of the fastest growing 48 countries 28 are Muslim majority countries or have Muslim minorities of 33% or more according to Jack Goldstone, writing in Foreign Affairs. In Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt at least 30% of the populations is age 14 or younger. A young prodigious population can be a powerful catalyst for industrialization and mobility; however, if development lapses the consequences can be dire as even greater numbers of people are without means and opportunity.
Texas has a unique role to play in the fight against radical Islam as it did in the fight against communism. Texas wields significant political influence. Of the last ten Presidents four were either born in Texas or used Texas as a political base, while Texas only represents one-fifteenth of our nation’s population. The Catalogue for Philanthropy ranks Texas the fourth most giving state reflecting an ethic of giving among Texans that has supported higher education, healthcare and community development. The confluence of Texas’s political power, wealth, and philanthropic predisposition creates a unique opportunity for Texans and Muslim-Texans to partner.
I recently attended a fundraiser in Austin for The Citizens Foundation, a trailblazing NGO that has built 730 schools in Pakistan. I was, however, disappointed that with the exception of one person, all donors present were from the Muslim community. The need for development in Muslim nations is not only a concern of their Diasporas but equally of the West. Partnership with the Muslim migrant communities who maintain ties to their home countries through a network of charities and remittances should be developed.
“Charlie Wilson’s War” offers an inspiring road map for Texas in defeating militancy and radicalism. What the Soviet threat was to a generation ago, radical Islam is for today. What the weapons of guns and rockets were to a generation ago, the shipment of books and computers are for today. Once these logical connections are established in philanthropy and political activism, I am confident that Texas can rise to the occasion as it did in the generation of Charlie Wilson.